From FGM to Charlie Gard: what are the limits to parental freedom?
In the case of Charlie Gard, a baby with a terminal congenital condition, the courts over-ruled the parents and endorsed the decision of staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital to withdraw life support. In face of protests supported by national newspapers, the Pope and Donald Trump, the state asserted that its judgment of the best interests of the child should take priority over the passionately expressed wishes of the parents.
The imposition of the authority of the state in the Charlie Gard case reflects a shift away from the long-standing principle that parents should be free to make decisions about the welfare of their children. Over the past 30 years, particularly since the United Nations adopted its Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, the law and social policy have become increasingly child-centred. In the same year, the Children Act insisted that the child’s welfare, rather than the rights of the parents, should be the ‘paramount consideration’ of the courts.
The process of state intervention in family life has steadily gathered momentum. Mothers are the focus of official initiatives exhorting them to breastfeed their babies. Parents are instructed in the principles of healthy eating and exercise for their children, while they face losing any choice over sex education in schools. Children are now deemed exceptionally vulnerable to parental abuse, which is both loosely defined and apparently all pervasive. There is now a tendency to regard any exercise of parental authority as authoritarian, as professionals and campaign groups demand further curbs and restrictions.
Children’s human and gender-equality rights are cited to justify ‘raising awareness’ about issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), despite mounting evidence that this has rarely, if ever, taken place in the UK. Some campaigners are extending their scope to question religious and cultural practices such as male circumcision. Muslim supplementary schools (madrassas) are viewed by some in authority as breeding grounds for extremism. The Prevent strategy, which aims to spot children at risk of ‘radicalisation’, has provoked fears that children will be reported to the authorities and removed from their families, if parents are suspected of ‘radical’ views.
Critics argue that, in modern Britain, child protection has become a moral crusade. At a time when many appear to have lost confidence in traditional values, it seems that we project our anxieties onto children and seek to protect them against threats that are more imaginary than real.
Where should parental choice over how to bring up children begin and end? Should it be restricted, and if so, what should such restrictions cover? Who should make the decisions? Should allowances be made for certain practices, because they are sanctioned by religion or culture? What rights should children be granted? Who is best placed to make decisions on behalf of children?